jeudi 29 novembre 2012

Confessions of a Former Smalltown Edie Sedgwick

My friend Neil recently told me that he had written a roman à clef about our late-teenage years.  I was excited (because Neil is awesome) and not at all worried (because Neil and I love each other and it’s pretty heavily fictionalised).  However, just to be hilarious (because Neil and I are cool like that), I tweeted ‘Think I’d better have a gin and half a Valium before I read this semi-fictionalised account of my smalltown Edie Sedgwick years’.

Then I sat down and read it, and it was magnificent but also really did remind me of how much I loved Edie Sedgwick and kind of wanted to be her at that age.

They say that Edie was the first person to be ‘famous for being famous’ – that her trendy looks and aristocratic background made her a precursor to people like Paris Hilton.  No wonder Warhol loved her.  But she was so much cooler than that.

She was not only beautiful but stylish and cool and charming.  Her look was utterly original at the time, hard to believe now that it’s been so often imitated bleached-platinum Eton crop, huge eyeliner and chandelier earrings, a leotard worn with her grandmother’s fur coat, a stripy T-shirt over nothing but black tights and knickers, a flash of spaceman silver.  It may not be what she became famous for in the end, but she was a talented artist – specialising in magnificent and powerful sculptures and paintings of horses.

In films like Kitchen and Poor Little Rich Girl, you can’t take your eyes off her.  And how many groupies and wannabes get actual, seminal Dylan songs written about them?

The book Girl on Fire – a big and sleek-looking coffee table tome comprising photographs and an oral history – is the best place to start with an Edie obsession.  I can look at it for literally days.

She was 28 when she died.  She was still beautiful but burned out – glassy and sad with her newly-long brown hair and increasing fragility.

I’m glad I don’t want to be her any more.  I’m too old, anyway.  I still love her, though.  Occasionally at a party – stripes and eyeliner aside, the occasional drawn-on mole – I’ll channel her a bit, with her loopy Egyptian sand dances and her brilliant and remarkable ‘naked as a lima bean!’ lack of inhibition.  Thanks, Edie.

lundi 26 novembre 2012

My Favourite Songs by My Favourite Bands: Hole

1. Burn Black
This may seem a contrary choice for my top Hole song, but I assure you it’s not just for the sake of it.  To me, this song has all the elements that make a Hole song great – it’s sludgy and gnarly but really pretty and melodic, a bit goth but with a sheen of sparkly pop.  The classic Courtney lyrical themes are all there in full magnificence – including possibly my favourite lyric of all time: ‘Starts off with magic, some sick religion/That ain’t no vulture, that’s a fuckin’ pigeon!’.

2. Doll Parts
The first Hole song I ever heard – on The Box, remember that? – and it’s not an exaggeration to say it changed my life.  I ran straight out and bought the single, then the album, and listened to nothing else for months – at twelve, my taste in music, clothes and general aesthetic were basically cemented forevermore.  I am wearing a Peter Pan collar and ratty vintage cardigan as I write this, no joke.

3. Northern Star
Quite simply, there are few better songs for screaming with your best friend and a lot to drink at four in the morning – and I have lost count of how many times Lou, Ali and I have done exactly this.  ‘Oh YEAH, and blessed are the broken and I beg you/No loneliness, no misery is worth you – I’ll tear his heart out, it’s cold as ice, IT’S MINE’.

4. Dying
This song goes with the one above in my mind, always – its quieter, sadder little sister.  I feel like I once listened to nothing but the two of them on repeat for about five years.  ‘And now I know that love is dead/They’ve come to bury me – there’s nothing left here to pretend ANYTHING.  Remember, you promised me, I’m dying, I’m dying, please…’

5. Awful
A far happier moment from Celebrity Skin, which will always remind me of dancing with Neil at Heaven on a Monday night, when drinks were a pound and music was all great.  Swing low, sweet cherry…

6. Almost Golden
Courtney’s solo album was really unfairly slated – even by the lady herself, who still likes to call it ‘that piece of shit I made in the south of France’.  I disagree – I still love that record, patchy as it is, and think this song in particular is right up there with her best.

7. Skinny Little Bitch
Don’t get me started on the new Hole line-up – Micko out of Larrikin Love is no substitute for Eric, pretty-ish as he may be.  But this is the highlight of the last record – Courtney at her least kooky and most efficient.

8. Gold Dust Woman
Yeah, this is a cover – but Courtney’s love of Fleetwood Mac is such a key element to her own music that this is like perfect symmetry.  I think in many ways this is better than the original, and it was on the soundtrack album to The Crow: City of Angels, which I was weirdly obsessed with at fifteen.

9. Asking For It
I thought long and hard about my second-favourite LTT song and decided that it had to be this one – the sick babydoll schtick to the forefront, and some heartbreaking lyrics.  Written just before her husband’s suicide left her alone with a two-year-old daughter, if you can listen to the desperation of her pleading ‘if you can live through this with me, I swear that I will die for you’ without welling up, then I don’t want to be friends with you.  As Courtney herself says, ‘I’m not psychic but my lyrics are.’

10. Good Sister/Bad Sister
I had to have something from Pretty On The Inside, and this for me sums up that record – you can listen to this song and feel the force of what was to come.

mercredi 21 novembre 2012

Brittany Murphy

On a recent rainy Sunday, I decided to watch 8 Mile.  I hadn’t seen it since my sister and I had gone to the cinema upon its release – excitedly buying our tickets the first Saturday it came out.  (We also went for a Nando’s afterwards, in case you’re interested – in the days when Nando’s was kind of new and exciting.)

We are not particular fans of Eminem, or of rap as a genre in general.  No, there was only one very specific reason why we were there, and with such keenness: Brittany Murphy.  Watching it now, the film really stands up – I think I enjoyed it even more this time around.  It’s a classic triumph-over-adversity musical, basically.  And the thing that elevates it above its own doom and gloom tone, the determinedly dirgy palette – is without doubt Brittany Murphy.  She is luminous, damaged, sparky and full of pathos.  You’re right there with her even when – spoiler alert – she breaks hearts and double-crosses her way to grasp hopelessly at what she wants.  You want it to work for her because she’s the only one in it who you really believe might be better than all that, who might make it out and be OK – and you wish fervently that she will.

It had always been the same.  I’ve been a fan of hers since my friend Ali and I went to see Clueless twice at the cinema.  (Ali is a tall blonde – I’ve always been the Tai.)  She was funny, cute and a great actress – I don’t think it was a fluke that her career went on to overshadow those of everyone else in that breakout film, including Alicia Silverstone (the one who was branded as the one to watch at the time).

Clueless remained one of her better-known and better-loved films, but it was by no means the only good one.  She was creepy in that-one-with-Michael-Douglas – ‘I’ll never teeeeeell!’.  She was heartbreaking in Girl, Interrupted.  She was so sweet and wonderful in Riding in Cars with Boys – another of mine and my sister’s all-time favourites.  She was hilarious in Just Married, with her then-boyfriend Ashton Kutcher.  And, incidentally, she cemented my love for her forever with her public response when he broke up with her and got together with Demi Moore – ‘I think it’s just wonderful – because he doesn’t care about age and she clearly doesn’t care about size’, along with a massive guffaw to show that she wasn’t mean-spirited, just messing about and being awesome.

My sister and I agreed: she was top of the list of famous gals we’d like to be friends with.  Others include Claudia Winkleman and Drew Barrymore.  I could imagine hanging out on the sofa with her in our pyjamas, watching crap telly and chatting, having a cup of tea and laughing until it came out of our noses.

She won loads of awards and was rightly hailed as a promising talent.  Then the film roles started to get a bit more obscure – although I loved The Ramen Girl.  Meanwhile, she just kept getting thinner, and blonder, and a little more eccentric.  I would genuinely cringe when I saw pictures of her on mean websites, with snarky comments about her appearance, her relationships, her ‘sinking’ career.  I like a gossip magazine as much as the next person – probably more, to be honest – but there are sometimes narratives that it makes me feel sick to look at: Winehouse, Britney, Whitney, Sheen.  Brittany Murphy was one of them.

Who knows what was really going on with her?  Whatever it was, she died when she was 32 and it was genuinely sad and shocking.  My sister heard the news on the radio in her car and had to pull over; she texted me and I cried at work.

It was one of those deaths that feels horribly like it could have been avoided – a lot of bad luck and random factors stacking up.  I feel the same way about Winehouse, Plath, Cobain, Phoenix.  Like if they could just have got through a dicey time, they could respectively have ended up being: old and fat and still with massive hair, people still paying to hear her sing; my Nan’s age; living quietly in the country and releasing records like Neil Young; still winning awards and getting all the kind of film roles that Edward Norton does.  With Brittany, it was a million tiny factors that added up together – low-level chronic illness, prescription drugs, a weakened constitution – and none of which alone should have killed her.

I don’t know what my point is, save that it’s a terrible waste and it’s bittersweet to see her old films on the screen now.  I suppose there’s a type of public death that’s a special kind of sad – no better or worse, just special.  I wish it hadn’t happened to Brittany Murphy, and I hope it doesn’t happen to any of the others.  You know who they are.  I’d name them, but that’s just too morbid.

vendredi 16 novembre 2012

Eleanor and Park

I obviously bought this novel by the equally-wonderfully-named Rainbow Rowell because of its awesome title.  (My name’s Eleanor and, um, I like parks.)

So, of course, I had high hopes.  But then it took a bit of getting into for me.  Some of this was due to all the cultural references, even though they are mostly ones I love myself – The Smiths, The Cure, Hüsker Du.  I began to fear I might be getting back into (500 Days of) Summer territory – that horrible feeling of knowing that I am the target market for something that I am really not enjoying, twee Morrissey references and all.

Then something started to change.  And, actually, that started to feel sort of appropriate.  Eleanor and Park meet on a school bus in Omaha in 1986, and it is not love at first sight.  The fact that they are both interesting and brilliant and made for each other sneaks up on them over a bit of time, until they become the most important thing in each other’s lives.

That’s what this book was like for me.  I went from mild annoyance to indifference to total immersion over the space of a few chapters – and after that I was hooked.  I read it until late into the night and then skipped lunch in order to read more.  Now that I have finished it, I kind of miss it.  I especially miss Park, who I think I may be slightly in love with.  You know, despite him being a fictional 16-year-old.

You don’t need to know much more than this.  Except that it’s not just a fluffy teenage love story.  There are some serious issues, some heart-thumping drama and a lot of tears along the way.  It genuinely brings back a lot of the stomach-hurt feelings of being that age, the best and the worst.

Above all, I’d say that’s what this book is: almost uncomfortably authentic.  From true love to very serious family issues, to the brain-shattering chemical high of just holding the right person’s hand for the first time, or even of hearing a life changing song.  It’s a physical, visceral experience, reading this book – like muscle memory, if you’ve been through any of it yourself (luckily I haven’t been through all of it, but it all rings true).

Both Eleanor and Park are beautiful characters.  Especially Park.  Oh, Park.  And especially Eleanor – poor, cool, clever, damaged Eleanor.  I thought my heart would break for them at times.

This is very much Eleanor and Park’s story, and quite rightly so.  With this sort of book, a common criticism seems to be that the supporting characters suffer as a result – as if there’s not room for them.  With this book, this is not the case – there are minor characters involved that are so perfect, I’ll remember them too.  Park’s parents – who met in Korea and still kiss each other on the mouth when they get home from work, whoever is watching – make me want to cry just to think about them.  Mr Stessman, the adorably ambitious English teacher.  Even Tina, the school bully, is very far from one-dimensional.

If I have one criticism, it is that there is not nearly enough of Eleanor and Park, either of them.  I know I will reread this and it still just doesn’t feel like enough.  I am a fan of the open-ended ending, and am certainly not someone who feels that every beloved book should have a sequel – but, Rainbow Rowell, please write a sequel to this!  Please?  Do it for Eleanor, and for Park.

lundi 12 novembre 2012

Like Dylan in the movies.

My Prince-crush has been raging out of control since watching Purple Rain – it’s the biggest it has been since 1996, I reckon.  (When I would listen to ‘The Most Beautiful Girl in the World’ on cassette in my bedroom, and cry.)  In his honour, this got me thinking about other popstars in films.  It also got me thinking that Gaga needs to make a film version of, like, Alice in Wonderland or something, sharpish.

Madonna as Susan (Desperately Seeking Susan)
The perfect role for her because she was essentially playing herself – it’s arguably the only time Madonna has excelled on screen.  She’s just so f*cking cool – for some reason, I thought that bit where she dries her armpits in the station toilets, her arms pleasingly chunky compared to today and crammed with rubber bracelets, was the sexiest thing I had ever seen at the time.  Not that I saw it at the time.  I first saw this film aged about 10 or 11 – which was well into the early 90s.  I was entranced and slavishly copied Madonna’s look – scarves round the head, little gloves, lacy socks, plastic beads – not realising that the film was about a decade old and I didn’t look current and cool at all.  Thanks a lot, Susan.

David Bowie as Jareth (The Labyrinth)
Obviously Bowie has been in a few films – The Hunger and his turn as Warhol in Basquiat must receive honorable mention – but this is the one, as far as I’m concerned.  It was responsible for turning a whole generation of women (hi!) into total twisters, I’m sure.  It certainly wouldn’t get made today.  You know, ‘OK, so it’s a kids’ film in which we get a sexually ambiguous popstar to wear a skintight unitard and a mullet wig to look menacing, sing songs and perv on a teenage girl!’.

Elvis Costello as Himself (200 Cigarettes)
Yeah, there are probably better cameo appearances by musicians in films.  (And this one stars Courtney Love, who is wonderful in it – but I consider her nearly as much an actress as she is musician, really.)  This is a lovely and not-well-enough-known film.  Elvis Costello’s appearance is hilarious, and sparked a whole new saying for me and an old friend of mine – if ever we thought the other was drinking too much, we would sagely warn ‘careful – or you’ll pass out before Elvis Costello gets here’.  We would also caution against staying out too late with, ‘dude, we’ll never make it back to Ronkonkoma!’.

Evan Dando as Roy (Reality Bites)
Just the most genius, meta cameo ever – I love Evan Dando, the sexy puppy.  Dave Pirner from Soul Asylum is also in the background somewhere.  That’s the 90s in one frame, man.

Nick Cave as Himself (Wings of Desire)
Just all beautiful and sexy – the neglected, arty, black-and-white side to the 80s.

mercredi 7 novembre 2012

Mixtape – Songs about other people

How very meta.  Here is an ingenious selection of songs I love, written by people I love, about people I love.

PJ Harvey – Memphis
This song is simple, chilling and beautiful.  It is classic PJ, but – such is the prolific brilliance of her songwriting – she could still afford for it just to be a B-side to Good Fortune back in 2001.  It is a tribute to Jeff Buckley – ‘in Memphis, on Valentine’s Day/You wrote it in a letter to me – but, oh, what a way to go…  When she invites him ‘if you want to sing, then sing it through me – you’ve got something left to say’ you can believe her and it is joyous.

Cat Power – I Don’t Blame You
This could just as easily be about Chan Marshall herself – ‘you were swinging your guitar around/and they wanted to hear that sound – but you didn’t wanna play, and I don’t blame you.  They never owned it/and you never owed it to them any way – I don’t blame you’.  In fact, she has recently said that she wrote it about Kurt Cobain.  They had much in common, when you think about it, so I’m glad she’s OK.  I really, really hope she continues to be.  I like to think that’s what this song means – she’s thanking him for making her know better.

Leonard Cohen – Joan of Arc
This song isn’t actually about Joan of Arc.  If it was, that would be cool enough.  But whenever my beloved L. Cohen mentions St Joan – which he does from time to time, in passing as well as in this dedicated song – he is in fact talking about Nico, of the Velvet Underground.  She was just such a… soldier, beauty, battler.  With ‘no moon to keep her armour bright, no man to get her through this very dark, this very smoky night’.  It is a beautiful three-way love story, between the narrator, ‘Joan’, and fire itself – ‘why, I am fire, he replied – and I love your solitude/I love your sense of pride’.  In real life, apparently, Nico wouldn’t even let him take her out to dinner.

Nirvana – Frances Farmer Will Have Her Revenge on Seattle
One of the greatest legacies of Kurt Cobain on my own small life is the people he introduced me to, culturally speaking.  He was, like me, a total fan and used interviews as a chance to promote the artists he loved.  Sonic Youth, Shonen Knife, The Raincoats, even PJ Harvey, all abiding loves of mine that were first tipped off by KC.  In film, I vicariously discovered Christiane F and heard the name Frances Farmer for the first time.  Of course, I then became as fixated as he was – going to great lengths to read her out-of-print memoir Will There Really Be a Morning? and repeatedly watching the Jessica Lange biopic (just called Frances, if you want to do the same).  But this gorgeously sinister song is a great place to start.

REM – Man on the Moon
I went through a weird period of being obsessed with Andy Kaufman.  (I really, really love Taxi.)  I think so did Michael Stipe, because this is one of two songs he wrote about the man who played Latka.  (The other is The Great Beyond.)  I love both, and most REM songs, but this is my favourite.  It has a really special, subtly melancholy tone to it that makes me all goose-bumpy and teary without fail, even though I’ve heard it a thousand times before.

Joni Mitchell – My Old Man
This is a classic romance song (albeit one with a sad ending), but made all the more interesting to a 60s music geek like me because it is no secret that it’s about Graham Nash.  It’s a beautiful song anyway (as is the whole of her album Blue – which would feature heavily on my Desert Island Discs; this hardly needs to be pointed out, but listen to that record in its entirety and it will slay you) but it’s all the more poignant for knowing it didn’t work out.  They both wanted it to.  He did need a piece of paper from the City Hall; the bed’s still too big, the frying pan’s still too wide.

Hole – Playing Your Song
Another love story with a sad ending, more visceral and more horrific this time – we all know what happened.  This is a roar of grief that you so seldom hear, as Courtney is so good at doing – it’s a pop song version of that time she made everyone shout ‘asshole’ at a memorial to her husband, through her tears and her smeared lipstick.  The anger is palpable – ‘hey you, don’t you dare blame me! I had to tell them you were gone/I had to tell them they were wrong – and now they’re playing your song’.  But what you’ll be left with is the quieter sad truth: ‘now when they call it cool/It’s just so mean and cruel, they sold you out.  They bought and sold it now it’s gone/and every note of it is wrong – and now they’re playing your song’.

Sonic Youth – Tunic (Song for Karen)
This is an interesting one.  Richard Carpenter (the other Carpenter; this song is about his sister Karen) hated it and had the original video banned (it was directed by Todd Haynes and involved Barbie dolls – I suggest you try and find it and watch it immediately) and it seems too clear-eyed at times to be a ‘tribute’ as such, as there is not a shred of sentimentality there, to either Kim Gordon’s deadpan voice or the slightly too knowing lyrics: ‘Look, Richard! I’m in heaven now – hello, Janis, Elvis… I’m playing the drums again, too!’.  But when it gets to the chorus, a repeated dirge of doom: ‘I feel like I’m disappearing, getting smaller every day/But when I look into the mirror – I’m bigger in every way.  It says: you aren’t ever going anywhere, you aren’t ever going anywhere, I ain’t never going anywhere, I ain’t never going anywhere…’ it rings so true it’s awful.  Even odder, when you think that Thurston wrote it, on holiday with Kim’s parents in the countryside.

lundi 5 novembre 2012

Purple Rain

I love Prince a worrying amount.  Like, really love him.  So, I’m not sure why I had never seen Purple Rain until last night.  Maybe because I was three when it came out, but that’s never really stopped me before.

Anyway, I love a classic rock musical and this is definitely one.  A sexy one, with Prince in it.  What’s not to like?  And he’s actually kind of hilarious, in a good way.

And Apollonia 6 is really beautiful.  And Morris Day is a brilliant comedy foil (‘Morris F*ckin’ Day and the Motherf*cking Time’ as Jay [of And Silent Bob] would say).

Yeah, some of it’s a bit hokey.  Yeah, I didn’t really understand why Prince is supposed to live with his parents and is always stropping off to his bedroom when, by my quick calculations, he would have been in his late twenties at the time of filming.

But just when these misgivings would start to take over, there would be some songs.  And – oh my god – the songs.  When Doves Cry.  Darling Nikki.  And, yes, Purple Rain.  That’s some stuff you can’t argue with.

Not that they would work if they were sung by just anyone.  Seeing him on film – and hearing his highly attractive speaking voice – reminded me of what an extraordinarily charismatic man he is and got me wondering if anyone could ever be quite that godstarry again.  Sadly, my conclusion is: maybe not.

Baffled by one of many slightly illogical scenes, my boyfriend asked how come all the candles were lit in Prince’s bedroom when he only just got home.  Through the window, like a naughty teenager, when he was in fact nearly thirty.

‘He probably lit them from down the road – you know, remotely, using his sexual magnetism,’ I explained, helpfully.

I can’t imagine saying that about any of today’s pop stars.  Not even Gaga.

Now I know I am a bit of a Prince pervert.  I often get drunk and tell girlfriends that Prince is in my ‘top five’.  Then the majority of them squeal and exclaim in horror, ‘but he’s like a pervy midget!’ – the others are younger and just ask who he is, again.  (Actually he is 5’ 2” and seven-and-a-half stone – a perfectly intriguing size, I’d say.)  I might see if I can get a grant to do some sort of scientific study – my very academic hypothesis will be ‘if you made a cinema-full of young straight women watch Purple Rain, at least 60% of them will want to do things with Prince’.  I’ll let you know how it goes.  In the meantime, I might just watch it again, a few times, by myself.

samedi 3 novembre 2012

Stars of our own Stories

Yes, we are.  At least I am, and I’m sure you are too.  Do you ever do that Madonna thing of walking around the streets, listening to music, pretending you’re in a music video?  That’s not just me, right?

I recently found out that a brief, long-ago acquaintance of mine had self-published a novel.  I got straight onto the phone with another friend who had known him at the time, and we conspired to buy the book and both read it.

OK, full disclosure:  the author in question is a man I briefly dated in the very late 90s, introduced by said friend.  I was a mere teenager, he only slightly older.  We went out a couple of times, kissed in a gay club on New Year’s Day, talked on the phone quite a bit, and I stayed at his parents’ house for one (very weird) weekend.  He then moved to New York and we didn’t stay in touch.

His novel is an autobiographical tale of his struggles with very serious mental health issues.  It documents his life from growing up as a middle-class English teenager (albeit a slightly troubled one, but weren’t we all?), into a deep fascination with and eventual descent into an underworld of drugs and violence (the usual) and out the other side.

I know exactly where I would have slotted into this story, somewhere around page 67.  He refers to a short, aimless period at 19 of living back at home, before he left to go to drama school in New York.

I was – obviously – not expecting to be mentioned.  I only have a hazy recollection of his face (and it took me a good five minutes to reconcile this with the author photograph), and that’s it – we were not even slightly important in each other’s stories.

However, as I grew closer to the bit where I know I briefly featured in real life, I found (yes, with appalling vanity, self-importance and ridiculousness – hi, have you met me?) that I was slightly disappointed.  There wasn’t even a sentence saying: ‘during this period, I went out a few times with this girl – she was quite sweet and we never even slept together, but I had a reasonably nice time hanging out with her and her gay friends for a couple of months’.

Isn’t it funny how we always put ourselves centre stage?  I hope this is human nature and not just me.  It’s a funny feeling when you experience it in action.  Like being a random bystander in the background of someone’s holiday photographs.